The Relative Difficulty of Resolving Motivational Conflicts Is Affective Context-Dependent

Maya Enisman*, Tali Kleiman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


According to Lewin’s seminal motivational theory, conflicts between undesirable alternatives (avoidance– avoidance conflicts) are more difficult to resolve than conflicts between desirable alternatives (approach– approach conflicts). This difference in the difficulty of resolving approach–approach and avoidance–avoidance conflicts was suggested as a general law for human behavior, and subsequent research provided robust evidence to support it. Here we challenge this assertion. We argue that the difference in conflict resolution difficulty depends on the compatibility between the type of conflict (approach–approach vs. avoidance–avoidance) and the affective context (positive vs. negative) in which the conflict is being resolved. We report five studies. Data were collected from 2019 to 2021. In Studies 1–4, we presented participants with both conflict types, embedded in either a positive or a negative affective context. Across different designs and stimuli, and for both experienced difficulty and decision time, we found that in a positive affective context, avoidance–avoidance conflicts were more difficult to resolve than approach–approach conflicts; however, in a negative affective context, no difference between the conflict types was found. In Study 5, we added a neutral control condition to relate our findings to previous research, which did not manipulate the affective context. Taken together, our findings challenge a seminal motivational theory and show that choosing the lesser of two evils is not always more difficult than choosing the greater of two goods. Instead, the difference in conflict resolution difficulty depends on the affective context in which the choice is being made.

Original languageAmerican English
StateAccepted/In press - 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 American Psychological Association


  • approach
  • avoidance
  • conflict
  • context
  • motivation


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